Some Southwestern Ontario school boards trailing the provincial graduation rate, but superintendents say the numbers don't tell the whole story

By Megan Stacey, The London Free Press

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

As high school graduation rates in Ontario continue to climb, some southwestern Ontario school boards are lagging behind.

But even among the districts with the lowest stats – Thames Valley has the fifth lowest four-year graduation rate in the province – administrators aren't raising alarm bells.

It takes some students longer than the four or five-year model to graduate, superintendents said, but it doesn't mean there's a problem.

“We have a large, complex board...20 per cent of our population are on Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and those students move towards graduation at a rate that meets their learning needs,” said Don Macpherson, superintendent of student achievement with the Thames Valley District School Board, noting that the board has seen a creeping increases in its rates but still falls short of the provincial average.

Thames Valley saw a 66.9 per cent graduation rate within four years, compared to the provincial 79.6 per cent in 2016. Over five years, 78.3 per cent of students in that board – also one of the province's largest – graduated. Ontario's rate is 86.5 per cent.

Avon Maitland District School Board, which covers Huron and Perth counties, is also trailing the provincial rate, with 72 per cent of students graduating within four years and 85.5 within five in 2016.

But superintendent of education Jodie Baker said the board has priorities that come before the numbers.

“We're preparing students for their life behind high school, that's the goal. We continue to strive to increase graduation rates in the board, but most importantly we focus on achieving success for every child,” she said.

That includes frequent monitoring and equipping student success teams to spot at-risk students.

The most important thing is supporting students, Baker said.

“We continue to search for ways to help each child maximize his or her outcome in whatever they pathway they choose,” she said.

A student-centred approach is what helped a French Catholic school board take top marks in Ontario, with 95 per cent of its students, or more, graduating after four or five years in 2016.

"Any element of data is great, but behind that - you have to drill down - there are student faces. It's that exercise of driving down and finding out who needs help," said Joseph Picard, director of education with the conseil scolaire catholique Providence, which has high schools in London, Woodstock, Sarnia, Windsor and Owen Sound.

Graduation rates aren't the only important statistic, Picard said, noting that the board looks at provincial test results, data on school environment, and suspension rates in addition to other metrics.

In Lambton-Kent, secondary students sometimes stay longer to take extra courses, co-operative education programs, or even to make a little money before going away to school. That's no reason for concern, said superintendent of education Mark Sherman.

“We don't have any local universities, so whereas in London it might be an option to go off to university and live locally, here it's not an option. I think some parents do retain their students a little longer, and that impacts on our grad rate a little bit,” he said.

The four-year rate hovered around 70 per cent in 2016, while the five-year cohort saw about 80 per cent of students graduate in the Lambton-Kent District School Board (LKDSB).

“We do have more kids taking the applied program, which we know impacts on our overall grad statistic rate. We also have a slightly higher than normal transient student population for students that stay with us or go to other boards,” Sherman said of other factors impacting the board's numbers.

“Overall we're happy, but we'll keep drilling down on (the statistics),” he added.

School boards like Thames Valley are constantly looking for new options to better engage students, Macpherson said.

“We recognize that we can't continue to do the same thing and expect different results,” he said.

That's why the board launched a review of its secondary education programs almost two years ago, with the findings expected to be made public next month. The current focus is on “integrated” projects that combine multiple courses and allow students to learn about topics that interest them.

The “school within a school” pilot project at Beal Secondary School this year is one example, and a new collaboration between schools in St. Thomas' STEAM Centre (focusing on science, technology, engineering, art and math) will take shape next year.

Engaging students in Lambton-Kent means watching for “early leavers” and sending specialized workers to offer support. Sometimes that means meeting in a Tim Hortons to talk it through.

“Who left us without graduating...and how can we get them back?” Sherman said.

And size does make a difference.

Huron-Perth Catholic District School Board – with slightly more than 85 and 91 per cent of its students graduating over four and five years, respectively – includes just two secondary schools. That makes it easy to spot problems.

“We're a small board, and that's one of our strengths; we know our students really well,” said Gary O'Donnell, superintendent of education.

Student success teams work diligently with those high schoolers facing barriers to graduation, helping them a craft a workable path to the finish line.

Most southwestern Ontario school boards are less occupied with the numbers, and more focused on the learning that happens inside - or outside - their schools.

“We want to know each student's story. You can look at statistics...but that doesn't tell us about Jenny or Fred who didn't graduate,” Sherman said.

“We want to look at custom programs for students to keep them engaged. The statistics are secondary.”

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Provincial Graduation Rate: 79.6% within four years, 86.5% within five

Avon Maitland District School Board: 72%, 85.5%

Huron-Perth Catholic District School Board: 85.1%, 91.2%

Thames Valley District School Board: 66.9%, 78.3%

London Catholic District School Board: 84.6%, 89.8%

Lambton-Kent District School Board: 70.6%, 80.5%

St. Clair Catholic District School Board: 81.2%, 91.5%

Conseil scolaire catholique Providence: 94.9%, 97.3%